GARY STEEL’s interview with Michael Nesmith was a shambles and his concert experience of ‘The Monkees’ was a travesty, but Nesmith’s memoir is a revelation.
It’s crushing when you finally get to interview someone you’ve respected and admired for most of your life and you just can’t connect the dots of the conversation.
That happened last year when, in anticipation of ‘The Mike & Micky Show’ – billed as the final show by the two survivors of The Monkees – I was allotted a paltry 15 minutes of phone time with Michael Nesmith.
He seemed high on his own wit and my sluggish mental processes just couldn’t cope. He told a long, semi-incomprehensible story that lasted a full eight minutes of our allotted 15, so too many questions went unasked.
If our chat was a letdown, the show was a torturous mess. I made the mistake of inviting an old friend along. The highlight was a delicious ice-cream he bought me at half-time, which management wouldn’t let me take into the Town Hall stalls, so it was biffed into a rubbish bin. I really wanted that ice-cream.
That should have been the end of it. With a sour taste on my tongue, under normal circumstances, I might have put my Michael Nesmith albums in cold storage and moved on. But as it happened, when I was researching for my fated interview, I’d discovered that he’d published a memoir in 2017. So, just prior to the interview, I ordered the book, knowing that any information I could glean from it would miss all my deadlines. Infinite Tuesday turned up several weeks later, but I felt disinclined to read it after the turn of events.
Despite a long list of more urgent reading material, however, something kept on prodding me to embark on what Nesmith called “an autobiographical riff.” Once begun, I couldn’t stop. It’s one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read.
For the uninitiated, Michael Nesmith was a young, LA-based singer-songwriter when, in the mid-‘60s, he successfully auditioned for a TV show about a pop group called The Monkees, a wildly successful series inspired by Richard Lester’s wacky Beatles film, A Hard Day’s Night. The Monkees was a satire of sorts, but the concept was confused by the fact that they were portrayed as a real group. And in time, they became one.
It’s this section of the memoir that will hold the most interest for fans of popular music, but Infinite Tuesday is rare in that it lays out Nesmith’s frequently fascinating journey and holds the reader’s interest right up to its last pages. Where most musical memoirs pretty much stick to the plot, Nesmith’s life story is extraordinary, and there’s really no easy way to explain his unusual journey. But it’s not simply the unpredictable and sometimes eye-opening story that captivates, it’s the searing intelligence and constant searching for meaning that pervades every line and imbues the book with a quality rare in such chronicles.
It’s this innate intelligence together with an ability to articulate his thoughts and life philosophy that make Nesmith a unique character, and Infinite Tuesday such a cracking read.
As far back as ‘Different Drum’ in 1967, Nesmith was bold enough – and had the words to articulate – a different approach to song. Like all great songwriters, it was the way he thought about and processed whatever was going on in his life that made them unique, along with his idiosyncratic choice of words. To his credit, his book is perfectly in tune with his art.
The chapters on his brief time with The Monkees are enlightening, and give Nesmith the opportunity to explain his longstanding frustrations with the show itself (and the band it spawned) and the way it was (somewhat erroneously) perceived. He also captures the time and its tumult with candour, and along the way, we get interesting insights into his friendships with the likes of John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix, and the bizarre and confusing fact that for a short time, Hendrix supported The Monkees on tour.
One especially gut-wrenching reminiscence has Hendrix turning up to the press conference to launch Nesmith’s Magnetic South album. “I was at the height of pariah-hood with the press and the pop critics, and the reviews of my new album were excoriating,” he writes. There was nil interest in the press conference, so Jimi turned up to lend his support. “It was one of the most generous acts of support I had experienced from a fellow artists.” Hendrix died two days later.
Though the taint of a teen pop group prevented Nesmith from being taken seriously at the time, all these years later the small clutch of albums he made with the First National Band in the early ‘70s are considered classics of hybridised country music. Although his solo career failed to fly, there were highlights and a few outright popular successes, like ‘Joanne’ from Magnetic South and later in the ‘70s, ‘Rio’ and ‘Cruisin’’, two songs that were harbingers of a medium that Nesmith helped to create: music television.
Although he writes about music beautifully, in many ways Nesmith’s many non-musical pursuits are more captivating. Running through the background of Infinite Tuesday is his interest in Christian Science, which he explains in full without any tub-thumping or evangelising. It’s to his credit that in his searching, Nesmith kept an open mind and that search includes experimentation with LSD (and friendship with Timothy Leary) and involvement with an Indian guru and his followers. He’s very aware of his failures in life and love and is open about the rampant and destructive ego that came with stardom.
One of the many fascinating facets of Nesmith’s life is the wealth bestowed on him by his mother, who invented liquid paper. This left Mike with several philanthropic organisations to run and led to the creation of his Pacific Arts business venture and even the successful patenting of a virtual reality system. His seemingly endless intellectual curiosity also led him to create a kind of ideas think-tank in the early ‘90s where experts and innovators and leading minds from various fields would meet up and commingle and swap ideas at his farm in New Mexico.
One of the more touching chapters expounds on his close friendship with author Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy), the way they would inspire each other, and his sadness over his friend’s unexpected death at the age of 49.
Infinite Tuesday seems too short at 302 pages, and Nesmith has obviously decided to omit quite a few chunks of his life to concentrate on a narrative that worked for him. Thus, while he explains in detail the unique fusion of the country, rock and other elements that made up those 1st National Band albums, he doesn’t deem it necessary to detail the albums individually. And while he mentions a band tour he undertook to Australia in 1977, he omits his disastrous visit to New Zealand in 1975.
He does write about his general unhappiness and questing state of mind at the time he recorded The Prison in ’74, however. One of the oddest singer-songwriter albums in music history, it was an album with a book in a box. The idea was that you read the story and look at the pictures while listening to the album, to thereby glean its full meaning. It’s a wonderful record but also deeply flawed. With its gently strummed guitars and amorphous waves of synths and ticking drum machines, it’s really a bizarre combination of singer-songwriter country-folk and what later became known as ‘new age’ music. The lyrics are packed with meaning and while there’s a meditative aspect to the project it’s also wordy and awkward in equal measure.
It was The Prison that Nesmith brought to his Stewart McPherson-promoted NZ tour in ’75 and few turned up to see him. Concert halls the length and breadth of the country were practically empty. It was amazing but must have been very difficult for the artistic ego. I wish he’d at least mentioned the tour in his book.
I’m sure that if he was of a mind to do so, Nesmith could squeeze out at least a couple more memoirs to fill in the gaps. But the guy is 77, and he’s restless and driven to the next thing rather than what happened yesterday.
Having been so disappointed with my Nesmith appointments last year, I’m so glad I took the time to read Infinite Tuesday, and heartily recommend it to anyone who likes discovering artists/thinkers/entrepreneurs who refuse to fit tidily into the ascribed bags.
- Read Gary Steel’s review of The Mike & Micky show here.
- Read Gary’s interview with Michael Nesmith here.